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The sky was brilliant at sunset Thursday, and many region residents captured the sight, including Keene resident Susan Campbell. For more, see Community Camera on Page B1.

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Granite State pollsters express confidence in election surveys

Election watchers may have been surprised that former Vice President Joe Biden won the presidency with narrow margins in a handful of battleground states, after national polls indicated the Democratic nominee held a comfortable advantage over incumbent President Donald Trump for much of this year.

But with the polls appearing to have been off by at least 3 percent, for the second straight presidential election, national polling organizations have begun diagnosing the latest inaccuracies and are even confronting questions about the value of public polling itself.

New Hampshire pollsters, for their part, say they are confident in the industry’s future, despite a host of new challenges, and pointed to their own success forecasting the 2020 race.

In a poll published Oct. 29 by the Saint Anselm College Survey Center, part of the N.H. Institute of Politics in Manchester, Biden led Trump in New Hampshire by 8 percentage points, 52 percent to 44 percent. The same poll also indicated that incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, held 25-percent and 15-percent advantages, respectively, over their opposite-party challengers.

And an Oct. 29 poll by the UNH Survey Center in Durham showed Biden leading Trump by 8 percent among Granite State voters, 53 percent to 45 percent, Sununu ahead of state Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, by 24 percent and Shaheen up on Bryant “Corky” Messner, a Wolfeboro Republican, by 11 percent.

Those results were largely borne out in the Nov. 3 election, with Biden defeating Trump in New Hampshire by more than 7 percentage points, according to results from the N.H. Secretary of State’s Office. Sununu and Shaheen won re-election with 32-percent and 16-percent margins, respectively.

Neil Levesque, executive director of the N.H. Institute of Politics, praised the center’s Oct. 29 poll for its accuracy and criticized some national media organizations for excluding NHIOP polling from their pre-election polling averages. Several outlets required certain weighting criteria — pollsters’ adjustments meant to reduce the effect of known inaccuracies — that the NHIOP believed would produce unreliable survey results, Levesque explained.

“As a result, they are putting their own bias into these polls, and they’re getting it wrong,” he said. “[The problem] is not the data that’s collected — it’s how you weigh the poll.”

Levesque argued that one error by the national media was to overestimate participation by young voters, which he said favored Democratic candidates in the polls due to liberal candidates’ popularity with that demographic.

National turnout among eligible voters ages 18 to 29 is estimated to have risen by approximately 10 percent this year from 2016 and comprised 17 percent of the electorate, up slightly from four years ago, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Granite State pollsters incorporated lessons from the 2016 presidential election — when many polls, especially at the state level, showed little chance of a Trump victory — into their methods this year.

Andy Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, attributed the past inaccuracies to many Trump voters’ opting not to participate in telephone surveys, which he called “selective non-response.” That behavior, in addition to misleading responses from Trump voters who did participate, was a product of their aversion to associate publicly with a candidate widely perceived as unpopular, he explained.

In 2016, selective non-response caused polling organizations like the UNH Survey Center to overestimate support for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, according to Smith.

“If you don’t have people who are willing to be honest or are willing to talk with you, it doesn’t matter how you weight the sample [or] how you word the questions,” he said.

Smith explained that the center’s decision during the recent election cycle to conduct polls via online form, rather than telephone, helped eliminate non-response bias because respondents are less prone to social pressures in that format. Several national pollsters, including Pew Research Center, have also adopted web-based polling in recent years.

Levesque, the N.H. Institute of Politics executive director, argued the polling error in 2016 was largely due to pollsters’ failure to identify likely voters, in addition to some voters’ decision to not participate in surveys. He said pollsters often did not contact many eventual Trump voters because those voters had not regularly cast a ballot in prior elections.

“Donald Trump communicated with people that normally didn’t … vote and who were motivated by his message,” he said. “They went out and voted, and they were missed by pollsters.”

The NHIOP improved its survey accuracy in the 2020 election cycle by canvassing more of that group, using a state database to identify people who voted in 2016 after having been infrequent voters or non-voters, Levesque said.

He added that NHIOP polls were conducted via text, rather than telephone call, beginning in late March as part of its own efforts to improve polling accuracy. Levesque said the organization may continue to use that method because it generated larger, and thus more accurate, samples.

Despite the recent improvements, Smith and Levesque identified several challenges that continue to plague public polling.

Telephone surveys have become increasingly expensive as their response rates have dropped significantly, forcing pollsters to spend more time gathering a sufficiently large sample, according to Smith. He explained that a statewide poll in New Hampshire now costs more than $75,000 after being about one-third of that price four years ago — another reason why the UNH Survey Center adopted web-based polling for the latest election.

Smith, a member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s election polling task force, said the group plans to study the results of 2020 polls and identify ways to make future surveys more accurate.

Levesque expressed concern that future political candidates and campaigns will instruct their supporters to decline to participate in surveys or to lie to polling organizations. He also said that like media outlets, pollsters may be forced to confront a polarized electorate that dismisses as fraudulent any survey results seen as unflattering for their preferred candidate.

Polling inaccuracies, which many experts claimed had been addressed after the 2016 election, in addition to those continued challenges, have led some to ask whether public polling is a worthy undertaking at all.

New York Times pollster Nate Cohn acknowledged those concerns on the Times’ podcast, “The Daily,” last week, arguing that polling informs people about the beliefs among voters outside of their own social circles. Still, Cohn acknowledged that continued inaccuracy would take “a toll on people’s trust in institutions” and could undermine the credibility of polling organizations’ other political coverage.

However, Levesque rejected the possibility that inaccuracies in recent elections and possible credibility issues will reduce the appetite for public polling.

“I think polling is going to be around for a long time,” he said. “… I think that there’s an urge by the public to know who they think is going to win.”

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Second Maplewood Nursing Home employee tests positive for COVID-19
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A direct-care worker at Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland has been diagnosed with COVID-19 as cases in the Monadnock Region continue to surge.

This is the second infection this month among employees at the county-owned facility, which suspended guest visits last week after a part-time staff member tested positive for the novel coronavirus. That person does not work in residential units and had no recent contact with residents, Cheshire County Administrator Christopher Coates said last week.

Cheshire County government learned of the latest positive result Monday during its ongoing effort to test Maplewood residents and staff, Coates said in a news release that evening. The current round of testing will be completed by Wednesday, he said.

Coates said the direct-care staffer works in residential units at the facility and has not displayed symptoms of COVID-19. The county does not believe the two employee cases are related, according to the release.

All Maplewood staff and residents will be tested this week as a result of the latest positive test, Coates said Tuesday morning. He said all staff and a limited number of residents were tested last week.

No residents had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday, Coates said.

As of last Thursday, long-term care settings had accounted for about 20 percent of New Hampshire’s total cases and more than 80 percent of its deaths, according to state health data.

State officials announced an outbreak at the Prospect-Woodward assisted-living facility, part of the Hillside Village campus in Keene, that day. Eight residents and two employees had tested positive as of Thursday, N.H. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said at a news conference that afternoon.

Coates said in the release Monday that Maplewood Nursing Home is “well-positioned” to prevent community transmission of the virus.

“While we understand this may be distressing to hear, the good news is all of the precautions we have implemented to date will assist us to mitigate the spread further and protect both staff and resident’s safety,” he said.

This article has been updated to clarify that this is the second positive test this month. A few employees also tested positive in spring and summer.

Coronavirus contact tracing falls to schools, individuals

RANDOLPH, Vt. — As COVID-19 case numbers increase in both Vermont and New Hampshire, public health officials are handing over contact-tracing responsibilities to school officials, health-care providers and, in some cases, to individuals who have tested positive themselves.

For instance, Randolph-area schools moved to remote instruction and canceled all in-person athletic activities on Monday due to cases of COVID-19, according to Superintendent Layne Millington.

It will be members of the school staff who will spend at least two days doing contact tracing, which state health officials are no longer performing for Vermont’s schools, Millington said in his message posted to the Orange Southwest School District’s website on Sunday evening.

“We will remain in remote session until all contact tracing has been completed; it is highly likely we will not return ... until after Thanksgiving vacation,” Millington wrote.

Though both of the Twin States are shifting how they are doing contact tracing, only New Hampshire officials have said they will no longer be conducting contact tracing for everyone who tests positive for COVID-19.

“Due to the rapid pandemic surge and widespread community transmission, containment is no longer possible,” New Hampshire State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan wrote last Friday in an update to health-care providers.

New Hampshire officials reported 358 new cases on Monday and recorded the state’s 500th coronavirus death, and at a news conference last week, Gov. Chris Sununu predicted the number would soon rise to more than 1,000 new cases a day.

“I want to stress that contact tracing is part of a containment strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Sununu said on Thursday. “But it is one and only one layer, or intervention, for helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As community transmission increases, it becomes a less effective strategy at identifying and breaking chains of transmission.”

New Hampshire’s 140 contact tracers are now focusing their efforts on people under age 18; people over 65; people of racial and ethnic minorities who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19; people tied to an outbreak; people in congregate care settings; and health care workers.

Chan, in the Friday update to health providers, instructed them to tell patients who have tested positive to isolate for 10 days from the start of their symptoms or 10 days from the positive test if they are asymptomatic and remain so.

Providers now are to ask patients to notify their close contacts — people who have been within 6 feet of them for at least 10 minutes during their infectious period — of potential exposure and ask them to quarantine for 14 days and get tested.

Since containing the virus is no longer possible in New Hampshire, Chan said, “it will take strict adherence to the community mitigation interventions (i.e., avoiding social gatherings, physical distancing, cloth face mask use, etc.) to reduce community transmission.”

Contact tracing will add to physicians’ already-heavy workload, James Potter, executive vice president of the New Hampshire Medical Society, told the Concord Monitor. Still, he said that doctors would recognize the importance of the work.

“The absence of that is not doing the contact tracing at all,” he said.

Health officials in both states have asked people to answer their phones when they call and to answer contact tracers’ questions honestly. New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said during Thursday ’s news conference that one of the primary obstacles to doing contact tracing is getting people to answer the phone, which only about 40 percent to 50 percent of people have been doing on contact tracers’ first call.

Because it is often a health-care provider notifying someone of their positive result, Shibinette said it makes sense for them to also inform people of how to isolate and alert their contacts of the need to quarantine.

Elsewhere, Vermont reported a total of 122 new cases on Monday. Nineteen patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, including one in an intensive care unit.

Orange County, where Randolph is located, reported 15 new cases on Monday. There have been a total of 68 new cases there over the past two weeks. Windsor County reported one new case on Monday. There have been a total of 24 new cases there in the past 14 days.

The Vermont Health Department’s 65 trained contact tracers continue to interview everyone who tests positive, according to a Friday memo from Secretary of Education Dan French. Health Department employees also continue to meet with school administrators to answer questions and develop lists of close contacts. The new process is aimed at increasing the Health Department’s capacity to respond as case numbers continue to rise.

In addition, “Schools already have well-worked systems in place to communicate with families, and families are likely to be more responsive to these messages from the school than to messages from the Health Department via unrecognized phone numbers,” French wrote in his memo. “This process will provide families with information in writing from a trusted source.”

Some Upper Valley schools had already taken on the role of contact tracing as cases came up in an effort to get close contacts of positive cases into quarantine quickly and to determine in what form schools might continue to operate. But other schools have found the burden of alerting families of a possible exposure onerous.

Brigid Neasen, superintendent of the Harwood Union school district in the Mad River Valley of Vermont, told VtDigger that her employees had to call nearly 40 people after learning of one positive case this week.

“This is generating great stress out in school communities, because, one, we’re not medically trained, and two, we do not have the staff and the capacity to do all of this calling when there is a case,” she said.

It does not appear, at least initially, that the Randolph area cases are tied to transmission inside the schools.

“At this point, it looks like the current positive cases happened due to hot spot travel and group gatherings in the community,” Millington said in his Sunday message. “While the current positive cases were not infectious at school, there appears to have been contact outside of school amongst students and staff with these new cases.”

Millington said he would provide an update to the community once contact tracing is complete.

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Keene alerts those potentially affected by data-security breach
  • Updated

Keene officials are asking people to take protective measures after a security breach may have compromised the banking information of about 5,525 individuals and organizations that have sent checks to the city’s post office box.

In a Nov. 11 letter, the city notified those potentially affected that the database for Technology Management Resources, Inc. was accessed by an unauthorized person, according to a memo posted to the city’s website. The memo says that while checks sent to the city have not been compromised, the person who gained access to the TMR database would have been able to view account and routing numbers that are visible on scanned images of the checks.

The breach did not involve payments made directly to Keene’s revenue office but only those mailed to the post office box, according to a news release the city issued Monday.

Keene City Attorney Tom Mullins emphasized Monday evening that the city itself was not the entity that was breached, saying Keene was just as much a victim in this situation as others who were affected.

The city works with Mascoma Bank to manage certain accounts, and the bank scans and deposits checks written to the city and mailed to its post office box, according to the memo. TMR, a vendor of Mascoma Bank, performs data-processing services related to those checks, the memo says.

Mascoma Bank had not responded to requests for comment Tuesday morning.

According to the FAQ portion of the city’s memo, the breach happened in June, and the city was notified in late August. Mullins said there were several reasons for the delay between when the city learned of the breach and when it notified those who may have been affected. Among them, he said, was the need to get the facts of the breach straight and extract information from the TMR database, and he also said roadblocks arose while working with legal counsel and insurance providers for the other entities involved in the breach.

The city’s memo specifies that the breach allowed the unauthorized individual access only to scanned images of checks and not to Social Security numbers. Therefore, city officials do not believe there is an increased risk of identity theft.

According to the city’s news release Monday, the individual was able to view checks sent to the city between June 2019 and January 2020. About 5,100 of the 5,525 people and organizations that sent checks during this time period are based in New Hampshire.

The memo notes that Keene officials are not aware of any instances of personal information being misused as a result of this breach, and Mayor George Hansel said Monday that, to the best of his knowledge, this is still the case. However, the city advises those who may have been affected to safeguard their accounts.

“First, enroll in the two-year protective services that are being provided, free of charge,” the FAQ states. “Second, contact the bank or financial institution that the check was written from to alert it about this breach. And third, review the activity in that bank or financial account now and at least monthly thereafter, and immediately notify the bank or financial institution if any fraud is suspected or has occurred.”

The protection services are offered by Experian at no cost. Those interested in signing up can do so online at www.experianidworks.com/credit, and businesses or organizations that have been affected can sign up at www.protectmybusinessid.com.

Both will require a code that can be found on the Nov. 11 letter from the city. The offer expires on Jan. 31.

According to Monday’s news release from Keene officials, N.H. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald has been notified of the breach, and TMR has stated that it has filed a report with the FBI.

TMR President Norman Picard declined to comment on the security breach, citing confidentiality agreements the company has with its customers.Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson